“May the 4th be with you” started out as a widely used pun by Star Wars fan, but has evolved into fully fledged Star Wars holiday. While the multi-million dollar franchise is billed as being set in “a galaxy far, far away”, the home of Star Wars’ special effects is a bit closer to our universe. Holborn is home to London Studios of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) – a special effects company founded by none other than Star Wars filmmaker George Lucas.
To mark Star Wars Day this year, we decided to pick through the many, many revolutionary special effects of these zeitgeist defying movies to bring you 8 Out-Of-This-Galaxy Special Effects that defined the sci-fi genre. With over 40 years of special-effects innovation from Industrial Light & Magic, there’s plenty to choose from.
Spaceships doing cool stuff
According to Thrillist, the creation of the spaceships in the very first Star Wars movie was revolutionary. “Until Star Wars (1977), shots of ships in space were filmed with large- and small-scale models, allowing for slow and rigid movements. All that changed when Star Warsvisual-effects supervisor John Dykstra devised a new computer-controlled motion camera system — dubbed the the “Dykstraflex” — for Star Wars. Now a spaceship model could be filmed against blue screen in a single position while the camera moved around it, the idea being to provide the illusion of movement.
Name a cooler fictional weapon that LucasFilm’s incredible energy sword, the Light Saber. It is impossible. The signature weapon of the Jedi Order and their Sith counterparts, this tool can cut, burn, and melt through most substances with little resistance, as well as leaving cauterised wounds in flesh to reduce the mess of any deadly battles (and let’s face it, this is one of the biggest parts of its appeal, right?). Fast Co Design write of the Light Saber: “According to George Lucas, he came up with the idea of a lightsaber for Star Wars because the film was meant to be a space-age Arthurian epic. It needed its own legendary weapon that the Jedi could use to set them apart, but it also needed to seem futuristic.”
(Not so) Fantastic Beasts
From Jabba the Hutt to Ja Ja Binks, the Ewoks, Yoda and beyond, the Star Wars special effects team are responsible for creating some of the most memorable space characters of all time. Using a combination of puppetry, costume and CGI, the creative teams made 180 new aliens for Star Wars, The Last Jedi alone. Speaking to Collider, Creatures Designer Neal Scanlan described the process of creating some of the films key characters: “We took animatronics and puppetry onto a location, and we were shooting on an island in the weather conditions. That takes you out of your comfort zone. You’re not in a film studio where your support structure and your workshop is close by, and you can build specific rigs and things. We had to think very much like a guerilla team and work very efficiently, using the natural environment where we could.”
The thrilling speeder-bike chase on Endor in Return of the Jedi has become iconic. ILM visual-effects supervisor Dennis Muren and Garrett Brown, inventor of the “Steadicam” gliding camera rig, visited a Californian redwood forest to capture background images, meaning they didn’t need to build an enormous miniature forest and film with motion-control cameras. The characters were then filmed against a blue screen and dropped into the images filmed by Muren and Brown in California.
While R2D2 and C3PO were actors in costumes, respectively Kenny Baker and Anthony Daniels, the introduction of BB-8 in The Last Jedi bought robotronics to the forefront of the Star Wars genre. At a panel in London covered by Wired,animatronics experts Matt Denton explained: “BB-8 was a ‘proper’ robot, but rarely one with completely autonomous movement. Denon and Lee introduced the ‘trike’ model – a robot guided by an attached motor unit to control the droid’s direction, which was digitally removed from shots in post-production.”
From sparkling cityscapes to barren deserts, the visual makeup of the Star Wars universe uses symbols and landscapes from cultures and faiths around the world to carefully create a believable alien universe. Before CGI advanced to allow the creation of the effects we now know and love, ILM was “the master of oil matte painting”. According to Gizmodo, “Matte paintings are fake sets that—most of the times—used to be made with plexiglass and oil paint. The artists used oversized panels to create the necessary detail that the camera needed to fool the audiences when the film was projected over the large surface of the theater screen. The paintings were combined with live action filmed to match the perspective of the painting”
While the smaller spaceships might fly round at high speeds and often find themselves right in the midst of the fighting action, it would be remiss not to give a hat tip to the exquisite Death Star. Admittedly, it’s more of a space station that a space ship, but the moon-style station is a beast that can travel through space, albeit at a very slow pace. It’s also home to a planet destroying super-laser and is seen as the Empire’s ultimate weapon. Luke Skywalker’s efforts to destroy the Death Star in Return of the Jedi makes for one of our favourite explosions of all time.